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The Goddess Asherah

Author: Jessica Leigh
Posted: August 31st. 2017
Times Viewed: 819

The Canaanite goddess Asherah appears to be the earliest female deity that the ancient Israelites adapted to worship. This early period, in which Asherah was first worshiped, is following the arrival of the Israelite tribes in Canaan. The Hebrews worshiped her for about six centuries, until about 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem.

Despite the bible's anti-polytheistic attitude, theres a hesitation by the writers to reveal any ritual detail of worship of deities other than Yahweh in Israel's religious transgressions. However, it is from the bible that we know of three goddesses the Hebrews worshiped during the days of Babylonian exile…one of them being the Queen of Heaven, Asherah.

Starting from before Hebrew adaptation, it’s clear that Asherah is the chief Canaanite goddess by rich archaeological evidence discovered in Ugarit. (Modern Ras Shamra) Here, Asherah was the prominent wife of El, the chief god. Her name in its entirety was "Lady Asherah of the Sea". As her husband's domain was heaven, hers was the ocean. She was also referred to Elath or "Goddess". (Making El and Elath, literally, "The God and the Goddess".) Her devotion to her husband was not unlike an Oriental queen to her master. When Baal wanted to have permission to build his house, he'd have his mother, Asherah, to intercede with El. When Baal dies, it is El who asks her to name one of sons to succeed him as king.

She was label "the Progenitress of the Gods"; that is, all other gods, numbering 70, were her children. These included Baal, Anath, and Mot. Asherah is a mother goddess whose maternal instinct goes so far as to be a wetnurse to the gods. She suckled deserving humans as well, such as Yassib, the son of King Keret.

Not much is known about Asherah before the Urgaritic myths. A Sumerian inscription from ca. 1750 B.C. in honor of the Hammurabi, labels Asherah as Ashtratum and the bride of Anu. The Akkadian and Sumerian deity Anu bears a resemblance to the Canaanite El in being the god of heaven, so then it appears that Asherah may have been worshiped and held a chief or mother goddess position at least for three centuries prior to the Ugaritic period. She was known in Southern Arabia from Ugarit tablets as "Atharath" and in letters from Canaanite chieftains to the pharaoh of Egypt the names "Astarte" and "Asherah" interchanged. The same confusion between Astarte and Asherah is found in the Hebrew bible and has still persisted in the modern era among scholars.

Among the Hebrews, we find biblical references to "Asherahs". This seems to indicate the carved wooden images, which were set up by implanting their base into the ground. Thus the word "Asherah" in the bible can refer to the goddess herself or her images. Because of the climate of Palestine, unfortunately, none of these wooden objects survive. However, evidence of Asherah as an important household goddess does survive, which consists of small clay nude images of the goddess. They were discovered across Palestine and are dated from all ages of the Israelite period. They may have been clay counterparts to the Asherah poles.

The frequent occurrence of these figures that are independent of male deities gives us the idea of just how widely popular Asherah was in all segments of Hebrew society. This may have to do with belief that the goddess helped in childbirth and promoted fertility. A Hebrew incantation from Arslan Tarsh and dated 7th B.C. seeks the help of Asherah for a woman in childbirth. < Patai p.39>

In the biblical story of Elijah's challenge to the Baal prophets of Mt. Carmel that ended in the defeat of a Canaanite deity and the victory of Yahweh, that Elijah did not accuse the people of abandoning Yahweh for outside gods, but rather for dividing attention among both. It is in this contest between Elijah and Baal priests that it seems the priests of Asherah attended, but were never challenged. It would appear that Baal was considered a threatening rival to Yahweh, while Asherah was considered an inevitable, tolerable, female counterpart.

Shocking archaeological evidence of Asherah's consort role with the Hebrew Yahweh has been discovered. Two large pithoi (storage jars) were discovered, one of them had a inscription that read: "Amaryau said to my lord... may you be blessed by Yahweh and by his Asherah" Another inscription from the same site says: " I may have blessed you by Yahweh shmrn and his Asherah." The word "shmrn" has a unknown meaning, but it may refer to Shomon, that is Samaria. Nine miles west of Hebron, has a inscription that says: "Uriah the rich has caused it to be written: Blessed be uriah by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he has saved them."

These inscriptions would lead us to assume that the very popular Asherah was associated with Yahweh, probably as his consort, and that they were the most popular divine couple. These finds have helped piece together a emendation of a difficult passage in Hosea, in which God is speaking. Pieced together the passage of 14:9 would be:

"Ephraim, what have I to do any more with idols?
I [Yahweh] am his Anath and Asherah,
I am like a leafy cypress tree
From me is thy fruit found."


Summarized from this passage in Hosea, coupled with the historical evidence, we have a picture of Asherah as the consort of Yahweh and who was a integral part of religious life until the reforms introduced by King Josiah in 621 B.C. < Patai p.53>

We can also summarize the history of Asherah worship among the ancient Hebrews:

1. The Israelites took over the cult of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah from the days of their first settlements.

2. Wooden carvings of the goddess implanted into the ground and set next to an altar of Baal, and located on hilltops or under leafy trees were used in public worship of Asherah. While popular private religious use consisted of clay figurines of Asherah, where she is depicted with emphasis on her fertility by making the gesture of holding her breasts.

3. During Ahab's reign, his Sidonian wife, Jezebel convinced him to make na elaborate public statue of Asherah and it was made and set up in the city Samaria. Making Ahab's capital the center of the Asherah cult.

4. Asherah's cult avoids the anti-Baal and Pro-Yahweh upsurging led by Elijah, that took place under Ahab.

5. Numbers of years later, the Asherah of Samaria escapes harm when Jehu destroys Baal's temple and massacres Baalists, and her worship continued until the end of Israel monarchy when the Assyrians put a end to the kingdom.< Patai p.45>





Footnotes:
The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai (3rd Enlarged Edition)


Copyright: I wrote it on May 22, 2008. First published on Paganspace and subsequently shared on Tumblr.



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